Getting on track with wearables

Are retail pharmacies late to the party when it comes to the health wearables market?

The booming category, which includes such devices as activity trackers and chronic pain relief devices, offers mass retailers — especially those operating a pharmacy — an opportunity to build sales and profits, not to mention a stronger relationship with consumers seeking answers. But, thus far, it appears that other retailers, as well as the digital marketplace, have outpaced retail pharmacy operators in this category.

Offering a broad selection of product across multiple price points, Walmart and Best Buy have captured a big share of the wearables market. and other digital entities also have gained significant market share by stressing selection and, of course, price.

In fact, the unit market share for online-only sellers of fitness trackers for the past year was 26%, according to Weston Henderek, NPD Group’s director of connected intelligence. Mass merchants took 16% in market share and electronics retailers occupy 12%. Fitbit and Garmin led the activity tracker market with unit shares of 71% and 13%, respectively, while Apple and Samsung led the smartwatch market with unit shares of 50% and 20%, respectively.

That these companies are leading the pack is not to say that some retail pharmacy operators aren’t doing their part to get into the category. Walgreens, for example, was one of the early adopters of offering wearable health products. The Deerfield, Ill.-based retailer markets tits own brand activity tracker Striiv, and incentivizes the use of the best-selling activity trackers through its mobile app. Through the app, users are rewarded with 20 Balance Rewards points every time they record a blood pressure measurement, clock 1 mile in steps or weigh-in.

“Wearable devices, paired with our 5-star rated Walgreens iPhone mobile app, are not just a passing fad,” said Jim Graham, Walgreens senior manager of media relations. “Fitness and health-tracking technologies have tremendous potential. Once you begin tracking things like heart rate, blood pressure and medication adherence, you open up wonderful opportunities for patients, pharmacists and physicians to share real-time data to modify treatments and improve health.”

“[We] found it very easy to use, pretty seamless and integrates with the app,” said Carl Jorgensen, director of thought leadership at  Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon, which recently test marketed Walgreens’ Striiv. “It’s an early entrant with a private-brand approach, and we’re surprised not more retailers are doing that. Retail today is all about differentiation, what can you be doing differently to provide compelling experiences to your shopper that your competition is not providing.”

Outside the drug channel, mass retailers need to stay on top of the fast-changing segment and have to play a bit of catch-up to become relevant players in the category, according to some industry experts. The industry currently is transitioning from first-generation trackers that focused primarily on tracking steps to devices that capture a broader selection of health metrics.

“Where the basic activity tracker market came on hot and heavy and lots of units were sold over the past five years, we’re seeing people transition [to more advanced features],” said Andy Beckman, director of North American sales and marketing for Garmin’s fitness division, based in Kansas City, Kan. “The key is training the customer that your place is a destination to find those [products].”

NPD Group’s Henderek said the wearables market is becoming more specialized, which could make specialty devices the best bet for retail pharmacy.

“With the Apples, Fitbits and Samsungs, the channels where those [products] are being bought are already very defined,” he said. “It would be very difficult to break through that barrier outside of specialty devices.”

Those specialty devices are coming, however, as many of the activity tracker manufacturers incorporate disease management tools into their product lineups.

“The highest category in terms of growth for health is growing outside of pharmacies,” said Alexis Norman, head of B2B digital health at Nokia’s Murray Hill, N.J., North American headquarters. She added that the real opportunity with wearables in pharmacy is in the programs that could be built around aggregated consumer data, including programs for weight loss, diabetes management and heart health.

Like Nokia, San Francisco-based Fitbit is building on its ability to assist in a disease management capacity. In November, Fitbit chairman and CEO James Park said that in its more than 10 years in business, it has tracked 90 billion hours of heart rate data, 167 billion minutes of exercise data, 5.4 billion nights of sleep and more than 85 trillion steps.

“Not only does this data allow us to deliver personalized health-and-wellness coaching and guidance, it also has the potential to help us detect more serious health conditions,” Park said, adding that the company was focusing on such conditions as diabetes, sleep disorders and mental health in an effort to open up revenue streams outside devices.

That opens the door to health-and-wellness services many retail pharmacies already offer.

“Wearables as a trend [are] not going away,” said Frank McGillin, chief commercial officer at Waltham, Mass.-based NeuroMetrix, which makes wearable pain relief device Quell. “From a retailer’s standpoint, they need to continue to look at how it fits into their mix, innovate and experiment. It’s a fast-growing segment, so it’s going to evolve, but demonstrating leadership will definitely pay out for people who are on top of the trends and [are] meeting the needs of their consumers.”